Desmond Mpilo Tutu
7 October 1931 – ?
Archbishop Tutu is best known for his belief in the possibility of ultimate interracial harmony – a conviction that becomes a feat when considering his personal history.
In 1962, apartheid reached the church. White academics could no longer teach black clergymen, and black academics were needed to fill the gap. Tutu’s teaching experience, his two degrees, and his conscientiousness made him an ideal candidate for this duty, though he lacked a master’s degree. In order to fill this gap, he left South Africa in 1962 to pursue a master’s degree at King’s College at London University.
…Tutu reached religious prominence and was consecrated as the bishop of Lesotho…
He returned to his homeland in 1967 and continued with his mission of teaching black clergy. In 1976, Tutu reached religious prominence and was consecrated as the bishop of Lesotho, an independent enclave within South Africa.
The positive events in Tutu’s life were not matched by events at home. A month before his consecration, Soweto, a black community near South Africa’s capital, Johannesburg, exploded in violence as 15,000 schoolchildren took to the streets. They were angry that Afrikaans, instead of English – their typical language of instruction — would be used to teach some of their classes. More than 600 people were killed.
Tutu did not return to South Africa until 1977, when he was asked to speak at the funeral of black activist Steven Biko, who died in police custody. Biko’s death was a turning point for Tutu, and he came to the conclusion that the church had to play a political role if apartheid was to be conquered without bloodshed.
In 1978, he accepted a position as general secretary of the South African Council of Churches (SACC), a 10-year-old organization with a decidedly political bent. The position gave Tutu increased media exposure, and he began to speak on talk shows around the world, pushing for economic sanctions against South Africa. In reaction, the South African government revoked his passport in 1979.
Tutu was just one of many voices in South Africa and abroad that called for sanctions, but his support for them helped legitimize what some considered a radical form of protest. The sanctions, eventually supported by much of the world, had a strong effect on South Africa. By the 1980s, the country’s economy was stagnant due to a critical shortage of investment capital, and diplomatic pressure led to the dismantling of apartheid. In 1982, Tutu’s isolation became a worldwide embarrassment for South Africa, when Columbia University’s president traveled to South Africa to present Tutu with an honorary degree. It was only the third time this precedent had been broken in the famed university’s 244-year history.
“Your president is the pits as far as blacks are concerned. I think the West, for my part, can go to hell.” – Desmond Tutu, after U.S. President Ronald Reagan on July 22, 1986, called proposed sanctions against South Africa a “historic act of folly.”
Tutu found himself in the spotlight once again in 1984, when he became South Africa’s second black Nobel Peace laureate. He once more used the increased exposure to push for sanctions. South Africa’s first Nobel peace laureate, 1961 winner Albert Luthuli, had been restricted to his remote Zululand village immediately on his return from Norway. A month after winning the Nobel, Tutu was elected the first black Anglican bishop of Johannesburg. In 1986 Tutu was elected Archbishop of Capetown, the highest position in the Anglican Church in South Africa.
Now South Africa’s highest-ranking Anglican cleric, Tutu denounced the White government’s failure to make fundamental changes in apartheid as another wave of violence swept his nation. As the country went into elections in 1989, Tutu boldly engaged in a nationwide defiance campaign, leading a march to a whites-only beach, where he and supporters who were chased off with whips. Soon after, F. W. de Klerk was elected the new president of South Africa on the strength of his pledge to speed reforms and abolish apartheid.
At the end of 1993, de Klerk’s promises came to fruition as South Africa’s first all-race elections were announced. On April 27, 1994 South Africans elected a new president, the country’s most prominent black man, Nelson Mandela, and apartheid was finally over. But Tutu’s job continued. In 1995, he was appointed chair of the South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a group that investigates apartheid-era crimes.
He retired as Archbishop of Cape Town in 1996 to devote his full energies to the commission. In 1997, Tutu announced that he would undergo several months of treatment in the United States for prostate cancer. He has continued to work with the commission.